Friday, 5 June 2009

The Crisis of Politics in the United Kingdom

In his book, The Great Crash 1929, the economist J.K. Galbraith makes the observation that embezzlement is the one crime with a time lag. There is a period during which the victim is ignorant of the loss and the embezzler is profiting from his gain. Both are happy. It is only during economic hard times that the truth comes out. Galbraith has been yet again proved to be correct, both with our banking and political systems. At least one cannot make the criticism that successive governments have been hypocritical. Until this year, it has been a guiding principle of economic theory that self-regulation is good regulation. Members of the Westminster parliament applied this principle to themselves.

MPs’ pay has always been a problem in the public perception. In the 1980s, there were attempts to link the pay of MPs to that of civil servants. But automatic pay rises have never been popular, especially since it has been long-term government policy to hold down the level of pay for workers in general. I don’t need to remind you that on both sides of the Atlantic; the rich have become a whole lot richer while the main losers have been the middle classes. Of course, the majority of MPs come from the middle classes. As was vogue in the past decades, self-regulation provides opportunities to be creative with what earning potential is out there, with the obvious route being expenses.

It is for that reason that one sees a wide variation in the degree of abuse that members of parliament have inflicted upon the public purse. It ranges from no abuse whatsoever through to the potentially criminal. What is clear is that all members have had the opportunity, many have succumbed to temptation to some degree, sometimes with the result of looking ridiculous, but few have actually been venal.

If the degree of actual corruption has been low, why the massive public uproar? First of all, it is justified. Instead of getting to grips with the issue of pay and expenses, it is an issue that has consistently been avoided by the House of Commons, with reform often being blocked by vested interests. But that isn’t the main reason and let me illustrate the point with a little story.

As some of you may already be aware, I work offshore. My employer used to supply secure parking for the vehicles of those away. Some years ago, this was withdrawn with no alternative being supplied. When I went offshore, I therefore parked my car close to the main reception, in clear view of security. Nothing wrong with that except, as a protest, and against company policy, I did not reverse-park.
Upon my return, I was taken aside by Lachlan, one of the security staff, where I had to explain my vehicular positioning.
“Hmmm. I thought you were up to something Martin. Because you wouldn’t believe the amount of abuse that we have had to put up with. “Can’t you do something about that car?” “Get it towed away!” People were so angry! To them it looked like you were getting something they were not.”
This is the main factor. How often has one heard on recent phone-ins the charge “If I did that with my company I would get fired!” Our MPs have been found guilty of this, the gravest of charges: enjoying privileges, at our expense, which we as common people cannot hope to enjoy.
If true, this insight suggests that our MPs are “out of touch” with the rest of us in the United Kingdom. On one level, this cannot be correct. Our MPs meet with their constituents on a regular basis: listening to our problems and if possible, advising and helping us sort them out. So if many of them are remote, what makes them so?

It is certainly wrong to generalise but since the 1970s there has been the rise of a professional class of politician. Now, I wasn’t going to pick on individual MPs in this article but a great and an early example of this trend is Jack Straw, the current Minister for Justice. Unlike many other Labour MPs, he didn’t come through the union route to politics but became seriously involved in his university days, becoming President of the Students’ Union in 1969. Jack Straw practiced law in the early 1970s but most of his career has been political; working for Barbara Castle as a political adviser and effectively inheriting her seat when she decided to stand down in 1977. It is a pathway to the Commons that has been widely followed since.

For a House that is supposed to represent the whole spectrum of British life and population, a class of professional is not desirable. But wait a minute! Should not a politician be professional? Certainly yes, a person can act professionally on behalf of the people but that is not the same as being a professional politician. For instance, in the dreadful case of the murders of the two French students Laurent Bonomo and Gabriel Ferez, would have led an old-school politician such as William Whitelaw to offer his resignation. There has been no such offer from Jack Straw because, apart from being a back-bencher, what else can he really do? It’s been a very long time since he practiced any other trade. Another example is the current implosion of the Labour Party. MPs are railing against the late-night telephone calls coming from No.10 to constituencies of perceived rebels. As one of the targets, Barry Sheerman MP was on the Today Programme (Radio 4, 5th June), telling of an early morning telephone conversation with a local party member after that person had just been called from Downing Street, wishing for the local party to drag Sheerman in and, hopefully, start the de-selection process. It is hot-house politics: alien from most ordinary peoples’ experience.

And so we return to expenses. . Before that, an MP was allocated three thousand pounds (about £15,000 in today’s money) a year for London living and told to get on with it. The system of self-regulation has been going on since the 1980s so for the vast majority of parliamentarians, it is the only system they have known. And for some of those, it is the only real profession they have known too. Is it any wonder that a few sought to maximize their income and otherwise treat the public purse with negligence and even contempt?

There is a deeper reasoning however, which goes to the heart of how our society is ordered. Do we follow Plato’s vision, where we are all specialists, led by a specialist caste of politician? The alternative view is expressed by Aristotle who states that a man should not entertain the notion of entering politics until the age of thirty. In other words, to have worked a trade, become a parent, fought for the state and generally become a well-rounded citizen before standing for office.

With respect to the many young politicians currently active in all parties, some of which I know personally, in general I would suggest that Aristotle has it right.